By Siri Gamage –
At this juncture, there is much discussion and reflection about the way politicians, particularly those affiliated with main parties, are campaigning to gain power at the forthcoming election in order to elect a President. Some references are also made about the way power was exercised by those who held it during the last ten years or so. Such discussions are aimed at garnering support for one’s party or criticising the opponents. While such discussions and comments are more focused on the contemporary context and to some extent the future possibilities, it is important to pay attention to the concept of power on one hand and why some individuals seek power through elections by employing numerous methods? It is also important to make a distinction between the ideal situation (theory) and actual situation(practice).
During the monarchical times in Sri Lanka, the power was exercised by the King and his close affiliates from the royal administration including Adigars, Provincial chiefs, etc. Though power was inherited by family lineage, the history is full of stories about conflicts and wars between father and son, siblings in the same family. Sigiriya (fortress Kingdom) reminds us about the famous conflict between two brothers for power. During monarchical times, agriculture and trade as well as religion formed the backbone of society. The craftsmen engaged in various crafts and villages were expected to provide part of their produce to the royal palace. In terms of social organisation, caste was an important factor. Ralph Pieris in his book describes in detail the Social Organisation in the Kandyan areas showing the importance of historical sociology for reconstructing the lost past by analysing historical records. Morality and moral principles formed an important part of administering justice. A King was supposed to rule according the Dasaraja Dharma (Ten principles of just rule). Buddhist monks were considered as guardians of the moral order with the support of Buddhist Kings (with the exception of Nayakkar period in late Kandyan period and a few others). Thus, we can see how the moral order was as important as the material order at the time.
With the onset of colonialism and the introduction of alien ways, values and norms, laws, principles and practices the situation that existed before changed significantly. Gananath Obeyesekere through his research shows how the tattumaru system that existed in paddy cultivation – based on fairness to owners of paddy land – gave way to private ownership leading to the fragmentation of land. He also shows how individuals who bought such fragmented land became absentee landlords or rich landowners. Research by Michael Roberts shows how motivated individuals and families used trading and business opportunities during the colonial period increased their wealth and status to become elites. Entry of some individuals to professions accelerated this process (for more on this see Nissan 1987). When the Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British and came under colonial government since 1815, the area under former Kingdom was opened up for business, plantations and migration. There was a boom in construction activity and many low country people migrated to Kandyan area in search of economic and other opportunities. If we look at the traders in Kandy and their family histories, we can find interesting details about this process including the history of pioneers. I know of several such families who migrated and settled into life in Kandyan areas after marriage to local ladies.
Even in the low country areas, those who associated with the colonial administration in various roles starting from being a mudaliar or a peon at the Kachcheri or the courts, assumed social significance in the eyes of the residents. This was because they had access to centres of power in one form or another. This is a critical factor when we are trying to understand and interpret human social behaviour at critical times like elections and after. Closeness of an individual or a family to centres of power plays an important role in shaping people’s attitudes and behaviour including voting behaviour. This is particularly so when it comes to the middle and lower classes and those living in rural and remote areas. If one can establish a relationship with power figures (or potential power figures), it is not only an aspiration but also something that opens avenues of material gain in one form or another. Majority of residents in an area do not establish such links however. Their plight is another factor requiring a different discussion later. Contrary to popular belief, many politicians who contest elections are somebodies with power, wealth and status already. This is because they or their ancestors have held office in the parliament or other important roles in government for generations. Thus, they have accumulated political and social capital. In the process, they also accumulate economic capital.
As Sri Lankans have been accustomed to looking at significant others for leadership and their attitudes and perceptions about leadership contenders are coloured by their past actions and status, this makes the task of those appearing on behalf of alternative political forces all the more difficult. This is because the voters not only look at the message but also the person. Person is not removed from the rest of society. Persons are very much social and political animals. In a society where the display of power, wealth and status through elaborate wedding ceremonies, material possessions, crowd power, closeness to power centres, and even underworld power plays a significant role in shaping attitudes, individuals from established families gain an upper hand compared to those from less well to do families especially in terms of handling government (Central and provincial) machinery and civic forces at the grassroots level. In such a context however, all is not lost for those seeking change. When I mention change I do not mean the tattumaru system in the political context between mainstream parties and their affiliates. Social change has been a subject that was the focus of anthropological studies in Sri Lanka starting from the 1950s (see Nissan 1987). At the time village in transition and how to get a better understanding about it in terms of methodology of research became a hot topic i.e. fieldwork, ethnography, surveys. Even among those who studied Vedda community, this was the case.
If colonialism introduced changes to the country’s economy, polity, law, education and religion, the post 1977 changes under the label Open Economy and Just Society introduced even more drastic changes impacting on the social fabric. Take for instance the ability of women from the villages and suburbs to migrate for work OR the ability of young men and women to work in factories in Free Trade Zones. To my knowledge no significant studies have been conducted about the social impact of such endeavours including the impact on the moral order of society in terms of families. Creating income earning avenues of any sort in the country and outside can have critical effects on the family, religious conviction, community and ultimately personal behaviour. Going after material wealth including an income anyhow seems to be the name of the game today. In the process morality takes a second priority. The tragedy is that unless a strong moral order based on spirituality and social justice principles act as the guardian of society and its economy as in the monarchical times, societies are doomed to face collapse of one kind or another. This is the story of modern times under neoliberal economics and the multiplication of power centres in the name of representative democracy to accumulate wealth and status. Accountability of elected members to govern the country to the people and their own conscience (if any) is at a low level all over.
In the past, sociological and anthropological studies revealed what’s going on in villages and cities in the face of social changes (embracing various sectors) so that the graduates and those with an enlightened mind and curiosity were able to grasp the reality beyond mere opinion or hearsay. This tradition has not extended to the political field though there are rare works by sociologists like Jonathan Spencer and late Ranaweera Banda exploring the economic and political changes at rural society. Such studies actually link findings with a developed conceptual framework or frameworks in the field of sociology and anthropology rather than mere data gathering and analysing exercises without much underlying meaning.
The failure of current generation of sociologists and anthropologists in the country to contribute to discourses dealing with power, morality, material wealth accumulation and exploitation of mind and body for such accumulations is one modern curse inflicted on the forward march of society. Time has come to critically look at persons and their backgrounds contesting elections through the prism of their wealth, status and party/family power as well as desired social change though the message is more important than the person advocating the power. Unfortunately, in the contest between the message and the messenger, it is highly likely the messenger will be the winner than the message. This will highlight the failure of education, and the essential role of moral advocates who have to fight an uphill battel to preserve some sanity in a system that has been corroded beyond repair.
Jiggins, J. 1979. Caste and Family Politics of the Sinhalese 1947-1976, Cambridge University Press.
Nissan, E. 1987. The Work of Sri Lankan Anthropologists: A bibliographic Survey, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 21(1).